The best books about Asian Americans

1 authors have picked their favorite books about Asian Americans and why they recommend each book.

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The Partition

By Don Lee,

Book cover of The Partition

Lee’s witty stories make smart observations about the nature of identity without ever feeling didactic. His characters are flawed and fully human, they make mistakes, fall in love, face criticism. Many of the stories feature Asian Americans trying to negotiate careers in the arts—from filmmakers to actors to a translator going up for tenure review. The collection feels particularly timely amid the conversations about representation and lack thereof in Hollywood and publishing.


Who am I?

When I was growing up, I longed to see myself and my family represented in ways that were not demeaning. Hollywood movies showed Asian women as passive victims or hypersexualized “dragon ladies.” Depictions of Asian men were even fewer—they were mostly the enemy soldiers in the background of movies about the American war in Vietnam. I became a writer to try to correct these grossly flattened stereotypes. I am now the author of 11 books, and recipient of an American Book Award, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book, and Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman.


I wrote...

Tomorrow in Shanghai: Stories

By May-lee Chai,

Book cover of Tomorrow in Shanghai: Stories

What is my book about?

In a vibrant and illuminating follow-up to her award-winning story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, May-lee Chai’s latest collection Tomorrow in Shanghai explores multicultural complexities through lenses of class, wealth, age, gender, and sexuality—always tracking the nuanced, knotty, and intricate exchanges of interpersonal and institutional power. 

These stories transport the reader, variously: to rural China, where a city doctor harvests organs to fund a wedding and a future for his family; on a vacation to France, where a white mother and her biracial daughter cannot escape their fraught relationship; inside the unexpected romance of two Chinese-American women living abroad in China; and finally, to a future Chinese colony on Mars, where an aging working-class woman lands a job as a nanny. Chai's stories are essential reading for an increasingly globalized world.

Hello, Universe

By Erin Entrada Kelly, Isabel Roxas (illustrator),

Book cover of Hello, Universe

Virgil is a quiet Filipino boy trapped in a well by the class bully. Helped by his friends – each with their own finely layered story – Virgil not only gets rescued, but also finds his inner voice. I loved the effortless diversity of the characters, which wasn’t the basis of the story, but truly enriched it.


Who am I?

I grew up in Ottawa, Canada, a child of immigrant parents, and I’ve always been curious about other cultures and far-off places. Moving to Hong Kong gave me the chance to explore my Chinese cultural roots and learn the language. I spent 14 very happy years in Hong Kong and my experiences there were the inspiration for my middle-grade debut, The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei. Like the character Holly-Mei, I love dumplings, bubble tea, and field hockey. The books I chose are ones that reflect my experience of being born and raised in a new world.


I wrote...

The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei

By Christina Matula,

Book cover of The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei

What is my book about?

Holly-Mei Jones couldn’t be more excited about moving to Hong Kong for her mother’s new job. Her new school is right on the beach and her family’s apartment is beyond beautiful. Everything is going to be perfect... right?

Maybe not. It feels like everywhere she turns, there are new rules to follow and expectations to meet. On top of that, the most popular girl in her grade is quickly becoming a frenemy. And without the guidance of her loving Taiwanese grandmother, Ah-ma, who stayed behind in Toronto, Holly-Mei just can’t seem to get it right. It will take all of Holly-Mei’s determination and sparkle (and maybe even a tiny bit of stubbornness) to get through seventh grade and turn her life in Hong Kong into the ultimate adventure!

Picture Us in the Light

By Kelly Loy Gilbert,

Book cover of Picture Us in the Light

Picture Us in the Light is the kind of book I want to fling at people who snidely look down on young adult books. It’s the story of Danny Cheng, who got into his dream college and is excited for his next chapter, except that the ghosts of his past are too much a part of him to just let go. It is nuanced, and beautifully and carefully written to portray the hearts and souls of the characters, all of whom are imperfect but also so, so lovable. Somehow Gilbert manages to be achingly honest about mental health, family secrets, the Asian American experience in America, LGBT+ relationships, and more, while crafting a deeply satisfying and ultimately optimistic story. But yeah, bring tissues.


Who am I?

Actually, I’m known for writing funny books, so I don’t know how that makes me an expert on books that make you cry. But I guess I’ve always counted on stories to help provide an outlet — an escape to a happy ending, a laugh-out-loud moment, or sometimes, a chance to ugly cry into my pillow. My YA debut, Above All Else takes place on Mount Everest, and the reality is that the stakes are terribly high there. And for young adults, figuring out who you are, and what matters to you, is a big part of the journey…even when you’re not on a mountain where mistakes and missteps can be life or death.


I wrote...

Above All Else

By Dana Alison Levy,

Book cover of Above All Else

What is my book about?

Best friends Rose and Tate have trained their whole lives to summit Mount Everest, world’s tallest peak. Spring of their senior year they set out for Nepal with Tate’s dad and their family friend. As they travel, Rose and Tate’s relationship changes along with the landscape, and there’s a new and different closeness between them. But with new intimacy comes new secrets.

The higher they go, the higher the stakes: altitude sickness, extreme weather, expedition politics, and their own emotions threaten their long-held goal of reaching the summit. When the unthinkable happens, Rose and Tate face impossible choices about each other, their families, and their dreams. Because at 29,000 feet, in the Death Zone, they must decide what—or who—they value above all else.

The Many Meanings of Meilan

By Andrea Wang,

Book cover of The Many Meanings of Meilan

This story made me reflect on and appreciate the power of names. Twelve-year-old Meilan moves with her family from Boston’s Chinatown to Redbud, Ohio for a fresh start. When the principal insists on changing her name to Melanie, she starts to question her name and its meaning. Her nickname, Lan, has many meanings in Chinese and she tries to fit into all of them: basket – to carry the burden of her family’s stress; blue – to reflect her mood; and mist – to be invisible at school; before cherishing her name’s true meaning: beautiful orchid.

Who am I?

I grew up in Ottawa, Canada, a child of immigrant parents, and I’ve always been curious about other cultures and far-off places. Moving to Hong Kong gave me the chance to explore my Chinese cultural roots and learn the language. I spent 14 very happy years in Hong Kong and my experiences there were the inspiration for my middle-grade debut, The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei. Like the character Holly-Mei, I love dumplings, bubble tea, and field hockey. The books I chose are ones that reflect my experience of being born and raised in a new world.


I wrote...

The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei

By Christina Matula,

Book cover of The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei

What is my book about?

Holly-Mei Jones couldn’t be more excited about moving to Hong Kong for her mother’s new job. Her new school is right on the beach and her family’s apartment is beyond beautiful. Everything is going to be perfect... right?

Maybe not. It feels like everywhere she turns, there are new rules to follow and expectations to meet. On top of that, the most popular girl in her grade is quickly becoming a frenemy. And without the guidance of her loving Taiwanese grandmother, Ah-ma, who stayed behind in Toronto, Holly-Mei just can’t seem to get it right. It will take all of Holly-Mei’s determination and sparkle (and maybe even a tiny bit of stubbornness) to get through seventh grade and turn her life in Hong Kong into the ultimate adventure!

Afterparties

By Anthony Veasna So,

Book cover of Afterparties: Stories

Afterparties: Stories is about Cambodian Americans, their first-generation Khmer Rougue-surviving parents, and the tensions between their dreams and desires for themselves and their families. There are apprentice monks, reincarnated souls, mechanics, artists, slackers, and wannabe tech millionaires. So never sells any of his characters’ dreams short. Every story is a gem! 


Who am I?

When I was growing up, I longed to see myself and my family represented in ways that were not demeaning. Hollywood movies showed Asian women as passive victims or hypersexualized “dragon ladies.” Depictions of Asian men were even fewer—they were mostly the enemy soldiers in the background of movies about the American war in Vietnam. I became a writer to try to correct these grossly flattened stereotypes. I am now the author of 11 books, and recipient of an American Book Award, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book, and Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman.


I wrote...

Tomorrow in Shanghai: Stories

By May-lee Chai,

Book cover of Tomorrow in Shanghai: Stories

What is my book about?

In a vibrant and illuminating follow-up to her award-winning story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, May-lee Chai’s latest collection Tomorrow in Shanghai explores multicultural complexities through lenses of class, wealth, age, gender, and sexuality—always tracking the nuanced, knotty, and intricate exchanges of interpersonal and institutional power. 

These stories transport the reader, variously: to rural China, where a city doctor harvests organs to fund a wedding and a future for his family; on a vacation to France, where a white mother and her biracial daughter cannot escape their fraught relationship; inside the unexpected romance of two Chinese-American women living abroad in China; and finally, to a future Chinese colony on Mars, where an aging working-class woman lands a job as a nanny. Chai's stories are essential reading for an increasingly globalized world.

We Are Not Free

By Traci Chee,

Book cover of We Are Not Free

Told from multiple points of view, this story details the horrific internment of fourteen Japanese American teenagers and their families during the height of World War II. The history of Japanese internment camps is often glazed over in Social Studies classes in favor of celebrating America’s successes in the war, but I was taken by Traci’s unflinching portrait of the teenagers’ lives and choices as they grapple with how to be Asian American in a world that refuses to acknowledge their citizenship and identities. 


Who am I?

E. L. Shen is a writer and editor living in New York City. Her debut middle-grade novel, The Comeback (Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers) is a Junior Library Guild Selection, received two starred reviews, and was praised for its “fast-paced prose, big emotions, and authentic dialogue” in The New York Times. Her forthcoming young adult novel, The Queens of New York (Quill Tree Books) was won in a six-figure preempt and is scheduled to publish in Summer 2023.  


I wrote...

The Comeback: A Figure Skating Novel

By E.L. Shen,

Book cover of The Comeback: A Figure Skating Novel

What is my book about?

In this debut middle-grade novel, twelve-year-old Maxine Chen is just trying to nail that perfect landing: on the ice, in middle school, and at home, where her parents worry that competitive skating is too much pressure for a budding tween. Maxine isn’t concerned, however—she’s determined to glide to victory. But then a bully at school starts teasing Maxine for her Chinese heritage, leaving her stunned and speechless. And at the rink, she finds herself up against a stellar new skater named Hollie, whose grace and skill threaten to edge Maxine out of the competition. With everything she knows on uneven ice, will Maxine crash under the pressure? Or can she power her way to a comeback?

Himawari House

By Harmony Becker,

Book cover of Himawari House

I was absolutely delighted by this young adult graphic novel which details three Asian girls’ lives as they live and study in Japan. One is from America, one from Korea, and one from Singapore, and each has such a profound story to tell about their path to self-acceptance and personal freedom. 


Who am I?

E. L. Shen is a writer and editor living in New York City. Her debut middle-grade novel, The Comeback (Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers) is a Junior Library Guild Selection, received two starred reviews, and was praised for its “fast-paced prose, big emotions, and authentic dialogue” in The New York Times. Her forthcoming young adult novel, The Queens of New York (Quill Tree Books) was won in a six-figure preempt and is scheduled to publish in Summer 2023.  


I wrote...

The Comeback: A Figure Skating Novel

By E.L. Shen,

Book cover of The Comeback: A Figure Skating Novel

What is my book about?

In this debut middle-grade novel, twelve-year-old Maxine Chen is just trying to nail that perfect landing: on the ice, in middle school, and at home, where her parents worry that competitive skating is too much pressure for a budding tween. Maxine isn’t concerned, however—she’s determined to glide to victory. But then a bully at school starts teasing Maxine for her Chinese heritage, leaving her stunned and speechless. And at the rink, she finds herself up against a stellar new skater named Hollie, whose grace and skill threaten to edge Maxine out of the competition. With everything she knows on uneven ice, will Maxine crash under the pressure? Or can she power her way to a comeback?

Native Speaker

By Chang-Rae Lee,

Book cover of Native Speaker

I feel Chang-Rae Lee broke out of the mold of Asian American books that always dealt with immigration or stories set in Old Asia. A young man, Henry Park, is hired to infiltrate the campaign of a Korean American running for mayor in New York City. Yes, this delves into the issues of assimilation and alienation, but the novel is about so much more. It’s lyrical and poignant and universal in its explorations of familial and marital love. 


Who am I?

A Korean American author myself, I published my first book in 2001, and in the ensuing years I’ve been heartened by the number of Korean Americans who have made a splash with their debut novels, as these five writers did. All five have ventured outside of what I’ve called the ethnic literature box, going far beyond the traditional stories expected from Asian Americans. They established a trend that is happily growing. 


I wrote...

The Partition

By Don Lee,

Book cover of The Partition

What is my book about?

Twenty-one years after the publication of my debut collection Yellow, I return to the short story form for my sixth book, The Partition.

The Partition is an updated exploration of Asian American identity, this time with characters who are presumptive model minorities in the arts, academia, and media. Spanning decades, these nine stories traverse an array of cities, from Tokyo to Boston, Honolulu to El Paso, touching upon transient encounters in local bars, restaurants, and hotels. Culminating in a three-story cycle about a Hollywood actor, The Partition examines heartbreak, identity, family, and relationships, the characters searching for answers to universal questions: Where do I belong? How can I find love? What defines an authentic self? 

Not Here to Be Liked

By Michelle Quach,

Book cover of Not Here to Be Liked

Eliza is passed over for editor-in-chief of her school paper in favor of a less experienced boy... then her private manifesto against the injustice is leaked, and the resulting school conflict becomes about more positions than just hers. It’s a layered, thoroughly feminist look into the complexities of ambition, against the broader backdrop of Asian diaspora communities. 


Who am I?

I was an ambitious teen, and as I entered adulthood, my relationship with ambition has continually evolved. Those of us with marginalized genders sometimes have our ambition treated with suspicion or scorn—by peers, family, or would-be mentors. I wanted to share books that don’t necessarily come to the same conclusion about ambition’s role in our lives, but that all grapple with what it means to be ambitious in a culture where that is often seen as threatening or unladylike—or where any sign of ambition gets one automatically labeled as “unlikeable.” I love these books’ narrators, and I hope you will find something to love in them too. 


I wrote...

It Goes Like This

By Miel Moreland,

Book cover of It Goes Like This

What is my book about?

Eva, Celeste, Gina, and Steph used to think their friendship was unbreakable. After all, they've been through a lot together, including the astronomical rise of Moonlight Overthrow, the world-famous queer pop band they formed in middle school. After a sudden falling out leads to the dissolution of the teens' band, their friendship, and Eva and Celeste's starry-eyed romance, nothing is the same. 

Gina and Celeste step further into the spotlight, Steph disappears completely, and Eva, heartbroken, takes refuge as a songwriter and secret online fangirl...of her own band. That is, until a storm devastates their hometown, bringing the four ex-best-friends back together. As they prepare for one last show, they'll discover whether growing up always means growing apart.

In the Country

By Mia Alvar,

Book cover of In the Country: Stories

Alvar writes about the Filipinx Diasporic community from the Philippines to the U.S. and around the world. Her stories about men and women who must travel to other countries to support their families show the complicated nature of Diaspora, as well as the strains within families as the result of separation, cultural dislocation, and economic exploitation.


Who am I?

When I was growing up, I longed to see myself and my family represented in ways that were not demeaning. Hollywood movies showed Asian women as passive victims or hypersexualized “dragon ladies.” Depictions of Asian men were even fewer—they were mostly the enemy soldiers in the background of movies about the American war in Vietnam. I became a writer to try to correct these grossly flattened stereotypes. I am now the author of 11 books, and recipient of an American Book Award, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book, and Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman.


I wrote...

Tomorrow in Shanghai: Stories

By May-lee Chai,

Book cover of Tomorrow in Shanghai: Stories

What is my book about?

In a vibrant and illuminating follow-up to her award-winning story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, May-lee Chai’s latest collection Tomorrow in Shanghai explores multicultural complexities through lenses of class, wealth, age, gender, and sexuality—always tracking the nuanced, knotty, and intricate exchanges of interpersonal and institutional power. 

These stories transport the reader, variously: to rural China, where a city doctor harvests organs to fund a wedding and a future for his family; on a vacation to France, where a white mother and her biracial daughter cannot escape their fraught relationship; inside the unexpected romance of two Chinese-American women living abroad in China; and finally, to a future Chinese colony on Mars, where an aging working-class woman lands a job as a nanny. Chai's stories are essential reading for an increasingly globalized world.

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